Matcha: Royal Tea

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PreparedMatcha_Yunomi

I dreamed about matcha last night. I guess that’s not that crazy. I drink a lot of tea, and matcha is pretty dreamy. I was at a tea bar waiting for my drink, a matcha cortado, and the barista handed me something beautifully green and decadent. Six ounces or less of strong, umami matcha topped with rich, green microfoam, and topped again with forest-green whipped cream. OK, so maybe it was a little crazy. But, at my subconscious café it tasted amazing.

Matcha comes from Japan, where it is primarily grown in the Kyoto and Aichi prefectures. Though matchas can be found from other countries and regions, they aren’t matcha in the true sense. The process of making matcha has been finely tuned in Japan over centuries, and it requires more care and patience than almost any other tea. Leaves are shade grown for up to a month before being exposed to sunlight, which lends them their bright color and concentrated nutrients. They’re plucked by hand, deveined and de-stemmed, lightly steamed, and dried, and the best parts of the leaf, called tencha, are sent to be stoneground into matcha. This last step is slow, but crucial. The massive granite grinders are able to make matcha super-fine without heating the sensitive leaves. It takes a skilled artisan to craft a matcha grinder or repair one. Aiya America estimates than only ten Japanese artisans have the skills necessary to do so.

That is the basic recipe. But matcha’s quality differs based on specific location, its flavor and consistency dependent on processing, plants, the weather, and the care of the farmer. The complexities of quality build fast. Ian Chun, CEO of Matcha Latte Media and tea merchant at Yunomi in Tokyo, says there are too many styles of matcha in Japan for most tea consumers to wrap their heads around. “One factory presented me with a price list for matcha with twenty levels of quality,” he says. “It’s too complicated even for tea professionals outside the Japanese industry.”

(Photo: Courtesy Mizuba Matcha.)
(Photo: Courtesy Mizuba Tea Co.)

Matcha styles get simplified for other markets, including the United States. There are essentially two: creamy and sweet (Kyoto style) versus dense and more bitter (Tokyo style). Then there is an arbitrary grading system that nonetheless narrows down the field: culinary matcha (for baking and blending), ceremonial matcha (for sipping alone, or in drinks), and a third “latte” grade. Chun says quality has to do with grain size, richness in flavor, brilliance in color, and whether the tea is creamy or bitter.

That’s a lot of subtlety to process. So why has matcha caught on with everyday consumers the way it has? A few reasons. One, it hits the palate differently than anything else found in cafés. Matcha’s umami and slightly bitter, sweet, grassy notes make up a tight flavor niche similar to the one chai stepped into about twenty years ago. That one was sweet and spicy. American consumers in particular took to cardamom quickly because it was different than what they’d experienced before and rode comfortably on the coattails of familiar flavors like cinnamon and vanilla. In the case of matcha—in some ways a drink that requires previous experiences with green tea and a preference for strong flavors—its niche can’t be faked by other ingredients, and it is similarly versatile. Matcha shines in dairy, sweetened, with spice, with citrus, in rich foods, and in lighter foods. Tack on its health appeal, and the tea starts to feel pretty limitless.

That was the perspective brothers Max and Graham Fortgang took when they set out to create a matcha-focused business in New York City. What began as a desire to bottle ceremonial-grade matcha after discovering it better fueled their New York-hustle lifestyle turned into a need to first educate drinkers on matcha’s potential. To do that, they needed a café. In 2014 the Fortgangs opened Brooklyn’s MatchaBar in the hopes of converting drinkers one latte at a time. “Thousands of people came in the door and ended up having long, sometimes fifteen-minute conversations with us about matcha,” he says. “You need to slowly get people’s palates to evolve.”

(Photo: courtesy MatchaBar.)
(Photo: courtesy MatchaBar.)

Opening a matcha business in coffee-saturated New York was a courageous move. But it’s paid off for the Fortgangs, who opened their second location at the end of last year.

Drinks like a cinnamon hemp matcha latte, a cucumber lime spritzer, and a matcha chai have helped MatchaBar draw coffee drinkers and more skeptical consumers. Graham says customers often begin with sweeter specials but eventually gravitate toward straight matcha. At the beginning of this year the brothers finally launched their bottled, ceremonial matcha in Whole Foods. They’ll continue to serve matcha lattes and the new bottled brew in a variety of venues. Their educational matcha pop-ups have found new drinkers at TED events, in corporate offices, and even in Tokyo (their pop-up had people queueing for three hours to try Brooklyn-style matcha). Flavor is the catalyst for converting drinkers, says Graham, but the real goal is waking people up to matcha’s healthy appeal.

Because it’s tea, it’s shade-grown, you drink the whole leaf and it’s pretty good for you. Tea ceremony purists, latte drinkers, and matcha sellers all seem to agree on that. There is less caffeine in a serving of matcha than coffee (typically about two-thirds as much), a ton of antioxidants and nutrients, and amino acids like the stress-busting l-theanine, which is responsible for the calm alertness that matcha drinkers swear by.

(Photo: courtesy MIzuba Matcha.)
(Photo: courtesy MIzuba Tea Co.)

Science combined with a laser-like focus on flavor has taken coffee to heights many probably never dreamed possible. The same thing is happening with all kinds of tea. Matcha is reaping the rewards of that expansion, even if knowledge of its origins is still thin on the ground. Companies like MatchaBar and Yunomi, and Mizuba Tea Co. in Portland, are seeking to grow the gospel of matcha while also educating on its cultural significance and keeping the tea farmer-centric.

With more slow-bar style (ceremonial) matcha popping up in tea cafés, and more consumers asking questions about matcha’s heritage, it seems to be working. At the same time, matcha’s culinary use shows no signs of slowing. That’s this tea’s ace in the hole—even if we don’t see more people drinking it straight, chefs will still be enjoying its charms.

Black teas, oolongs, and other greens can’t really hope to compete with matcha in terms of food. Because matcha is powdered and so strongly flavored, a little goes a long way. And because it is so varied, to integrate matcha into things like simple syrup (see opposite page), ice cream, croissants, chocolate, noodles, and beer is to play with terroir and tradition. Kings and warriors may have imbibed the drink first, but today chefs, brewers, bakers, and bartenders are spreading the flavor to the masses. Drinks are the easiest way to play with matcha, lattes and cocktails especially.

Pretty soon walking into a grocery store and grabbing a cold bottle of matcha might be a reality in places beyond New York City and Portland. Even more remarkable, consumers might be on board for the unadulterated matcha at their fingertips. This green tea is an acquired taste, but for whatever reason—its gift of focused energy, its surprisingly complex flavor, its cute-as-anime color—drinkers are anything but deterred. In the meantime, I will probably continue dreaming about wild ways to serve it. I’m crossing my fingers for matcha gyoza next.

(Photo: Cory Eldridge.)
(Photo: Cory Eldridge.)

Umami Mixed Drinks

At the intersection of culinary tea, mixology, and matcha fervor you’ll find some pretty ingenious cocktail recipes. Classic drinks like this one take on fresh flavor and hue with the easy addition of matcha powder. Meanwhile, bars, cafés, and restaurants around the globe incorporate matcha to show off drinks ranging from appropriately healthful to weirdly wonderful. The grassy, umami notes that have infiltrated drink culture seem here to stay.

Matcha Simple Syrup

0.5 ounce culinary matcha powder 2 cups water 2 cups cane sugar
Bring ingredients to a boil in a saucepan, stirring gently to break up the matcha. Reduce heat and simmer for three minutes. Pour into glass jar to store. Syrup keeps in the fridge for about two weeks.

Garden Party Matcha Old Fashioned

2 ounces bourbon 0.5 ounce matcha simple syrup 2 dashes

Scrappy’s lavender bitters

Pour the matcha syrup into an old-fashioned glass and saturate with the bitters, then add a dash of water. Fill the glass with ice cubes or preferably one large cube, and add the bourbon. Stir gently and garnish with a cherry.

(Recipes by Joni of Mint & Mirth, mintandmirth.com.)

Regan Crisp is a writer based in Portland.